Preparing for College

The College Application Arms Race

A while back, I posted a thread on the College Confidential discussion forum entitled World Record for Number of Applications? It drew quite a response from forum members. To date, there are over 250 posts responding to my curiosity about how many applications current seniors are submitting (Or have submitted) as part of their college quest. Here are a couple sample comments from that thread that show some of the amazing lengths applicants are going to:

- A CCer from the last admissions cycle applied to Stanford, Duke, Dartmouth, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, Columbia, UPenn, Williams, Amherst, Oxford, Emory, Vanderbilt, UChicago, WashU, Northwestern, Georgetown, NYU, Carnegie Mellon, Caltech, MIT, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Tufts, and Boston University. I believe that's 29 schools.

- Back in the early days of this forum, there was a student who thought that his list of 35 schools was ... too light and wanted to add a few schools. He was also applying to BA/MD programs.

- I'm going to be applying to close to 20 schools. There's too many good ones to choose from, and since the schools at the level I want to study are reaches for everyone I want to apply to enough of the schools I love to ensure that I get accepted somewhere.

- I was told by a very powerful Catholic nun that I'd be wasting my life if I applied to more than 3 colleges.

I threw that last one in just for fun. :-) Seriously, the process is spiraling out of control. If you're a current senior, it's probably too late to assess your application plan, but for you juniors, there's still time to be reasonable!

That "very powerful Catholic nun" cited above is indeed a lonely voice crying in the wilderness these days. And that brings me to a very interesting article by Eric Gorski, education writer for the Los Angeles Times. He notes that more isn't always better. Here are a few highlight.

As college application numbers spiral out of control,

a few lonely voices say less is more

One recent afternoon, Kimberly Pollock visited the college counseling office at the Derryfield School, a small independent day school set on 84 wooded acres in Manchester, N.H. It had come time to talk number of applications, and the senior honors student was starting to wonder about her list.

At other elite high schools around the country — the kinds of places that, like Derryfield, boast crew teams and dignified crests and annual tuition north of $25,000 — students are applying to 12, 15, even 20 colleges this fall, fueling a high-stress admissions arms race that shows no signs of slowing.

Even Kimberly's supportive mother, a nurse at a Harvard-affiliated hospital, succumbed to the pressure. Her bedroom is crammed with books on how to craft the perfect essay and talk to the dean.

Kimberly had settled on a reasonable, realistic list of five schools she loved. Still, on the day she met guidance counselor Brennan Barnard, she was having second thoughts.

"Is this a thoughtful list?' Barnard asked.


"That's all that matters."

And just like that, a measure of sanity was restored to the process of applying to college.

Like never before, college admissions are being driven by big numbers and an appetite for prestige. As more students compete for slots and colleges go to greater lengths to compete for students, it's become easier for students to over-apply and harder to get into the most selective schools.

"As acceptance rates go lower, families feel like they have to make it up with quantity," said Michael Acquilano, college counselor at Staten Island

The growth of the Common Application — which makes it possible to apply to more schools with a touch of a button — plus easy online applications and some colleges' aggressive marketing of free "fast apps" that arrive unsolicited in students' mailboxes are all contributing to the rise in applications.

Colleges want to boast about how sought-after and selective they are — and possibly move up the U.S. News and World Report rankings that hold sway over so many families. Admissions officers that don't keep numbers up run the risk of unemployment and lower bond ratings for their schools.

The result: 23 percent of high school seniors applied to six or more colleges last year, a huge jump from 13 percent in 2000, according to surveys of college freshmen by the University of California, Los Angeles.

The consequences range from stressed-out 17-year-olds to parents spending needlessly in a struggling economy to colleges that have no idea how many applicants actually want to enroll. That has contributed to longer waiting lists and a whole new cycle of confusion and stress for everyone.

A small but determined group is going in the opposite direction: Families more concerned with finding a good match than the most impressive bumper sticker. Colleges making it harder instead of easier to apply. And high-school counselors getting through with the message that less is more.

The Derryfield School looks like it ought to be an accessory to application proliferation.

It was founded in 1964 by 39 families who wanted rigorous college prep and small classes but also dinner at home with their kids instead of boarding school.

The school has a sculpture garden, new turf field and strong tradition in athletics and the arts. The crew team trains at the Amoskeag Rowing Club on a five-mile stretch of the Merrimack River. The comedian Sarah Silverman is a graduate. Tuition is $25,200. Academy, a private college prep school in New York. "They throw 15 applications out there and see what goes in." . . .

[Skipping to the end of this long article]:

. . . Ann Wright, the College Board's vice president for the Southwest region, said it will be very difficult to scale down college applications given the era's intense competition.

"I do think there's always a tipping point," she said, "where it's just too much and you begin to see not just a few people but a lot of people recognizing things have gone too far."


So, you can see the effect of this pressure cooker that is today's college application process. As one observant poster on the CC forum notes:

- Nobody has ever said that the process of acculturation was an easy one, let alone that it was necessary nor right.

I couldn't agree more. I think.

What do you think?


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